Why Sleep is Important

Written by Kim OBrien Root

Ah, summertime. Days of sleeping in and staying up late – sleep schedules tend to go out the window. But what might seem like a child’s dream turns into a parent’s nightmare come September when it’s time for school to start and for children to get back into a routine.

It’s not unhealthy for sleep schedules to go awry during the summer, but it is important to get children back in good sleeping practices the closer it gets to back-to-school time, says Dr. Michael Strunc, a pediatric neurologist and sleep specialist at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk. Because when kids aren’t getting enough sleep, it affects everyone. 

“We don’t always give sleep the proper place that it’s due,” Strunc says.

Every living being needs sleep, some require more than others. Both the brain and the body need sleep – it’s the time when muscles, bone and skin can grow, and when the body repairs injuries. We sleep at night because darkness prompts the brain to produce a chemical called melatonin, which makes us sleepy. The brain turns down production in the early morning hours, as it gets light again, helping us wake up.

Not getting enough sleep can have disastrous results. It can affect memory and brain function. It can weaken immunity and cause depression. As we age, it can cause weight gain and other health issues, including raising the risk of diabetes and harming the heart.

For teenagers, driving too early in the morning can be dangerous because their brains aren’t awake enough. Studies have shown there’s an increase in teen accidents when school start times are too early. “Insufficient sleep appears to have deleterious consequences such as decrements in mood and increased risktaking, impaired academics and increased crash rates,” says Dr. Robert Vorona, a sleep specialist and associate professor of internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Vorona was the principal investigator and author of two studies on the subject. 

The amount of sleep that children need daily depends on their age. From birth to teenage years, the amount ranges from 16 hours for a newborn to about nine and a half hours for a typical high schooler, according to Strunc. Sleep needs change over the course of a child’s life. The onset of puberty, for example, brings about a shift in the body’s circadian rhythm, often causing preteens to not feel sleepy as early in the evening as they did as children. At the same time, it’s important for preteens and teens to get adequate amounts of sleep so they can concentrate and function during the day.

Unfortunately, insomnia is a common problem in children and teenagers, Strunc says. A big reason these days is technology – kids are so connected to screens that it can cause trouble sleeping. “Unless you have a proactive plan to turn technology off, it can interfere with what our brains want to do when it comes to sleep,” Strunc says.

Additionally, the busy lives of families can get in the way of sleep. With two-income families plus homework and various activities, “evening is more about family time than going to bed,” Strunc says. “Sometimes that evening quality time takes precedence. Unfortunately our busy lives have added to the pressure when it comes to devote adequate time to sleep.”

But good sleep practices can be learned.

First of all, figure out how much sleep your child should get. A 1st grader around 6 years old, for example, needs about 10 hours of sleep at night. Say the child has to wake up at 7 a.m. each morning to get ready for school – they should be falling asleep by 9 p.m. each night. 

About an hour before bedtime, all technology should be turned off. That means cell phones, computers and televisions. Letting a child watch TV to fall asleep does not really help, Strunc cautions – the flickering lights from the TV tend to stimulate the brain. 

It’s helpful, Strunc says, if the whole household turns off technology and keeps things calm and relaxing before bed. Then, once it’s time to turn in, white noise (such as a fan or soft music) can help reinforce the calm until it’s time to drift off to sleep.

Strunc is not opposed to giving children synthetic melatonin supplements to help them sleep, but says it should be used in the short term unless a child has a medical reason to be on it longer. It can be helpful for children with autism and other chronic health conditions that make it difficult to relax and fall asleep. Antihistamines such as Benadryl used to treat insomnia are not recommended, but a low- dose of melatonin can actually help ease children into a good sleep schedule, Strunc says.

“There are some pretty good short-term studies that show it can help you fall asleep and stay asleep better,” he says. 

Research hasn’t determined whether long-term use could have any effects on children’s health, according to Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. Because melatonin suppresses some hormones that regulate puberty, she says, there is some concern that chronic use could affect normal pubertal development.

“It’s more of a theoretical concern at this point,” Owens says, “but I think that’s what tends to be most worrisome.”

Sleep specialists say it’s important for parents to first seek to understand and address the root of sleep problems rather than reaching for a quick fix in a pill. Issues can be caused by a multitude of issues, such as sleep apnea, restless-leg syndrome or just bad sleep habits. 

That’s when a visit to a sleep specialist might help. CHKD runs the Center for Pediatric Sleep Medicine – a pediatric sleep laboratory where sleep studies can be done. Strunc is available to talk to other doctors and even schools about good sleep tactics.

“We get families to understand what a normal sleeping routine should look like,” Strunc says. “They need to have a plan. In a couple of weeks, most children should sleep better if they’re willing to put in the work.”

TIPS TO HELP YOUR CHILD SLEEP BETTER

  1. Set a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it.
  2. Set and establish a consistent morning wake-up time.
  3. Establish a setting in your child’s bedroom that is calm and relaxing.
  4. Interact with your child at bedtime. Don’t let a TV, video or a computer take your place.
  5. Do not allow children to watch anything that is not right for their age. This applies during the day and at night. Be aware of images that may frighten them.
  6. Do not let your child fall asleep while being held, rocked, fed a bottle or while nursing.
  7. Do not allow your child to have foods or drinks with caffeine at bedtime. This includes chocolate and sodas. Try not to give any medicine that has a stimulant at bedtime.

From theUCLA Sleep Center.

About the author

Kim OBrien Root

Kim O'Brien Root has been a reporter for 20 years and previously worked for the Daily Press and The Roanoke Times. She's been a freelance journalist since 2010, balancing writing with being a chronic volunteer. She lives in Hampton with her husband, a fellow journalist, two children and a dog.